The first time I tried an ultra wide-angle lens I was instantly addicted – not only could I get great expanses of landscape encapsulated in the view finder, but also create dynamic environmental portrait images where my subject was featured artistically within their natural setting. Photographic equipment can quickly add up when travelling, and weigh you down. Lenses, tripods and accessories soon take up more space than all your clothing combined and this increase in expensive belongings can be burdensome at times. But if you are starting out in photography and keen to add a bit more arsenal to your original twin lens kit, a lightweight, compact and unobtrusive ultra-wide angle lens can be a creative companion.
So what is an ultra wide-angle lens?
An ultra wide-angle lens is one whose focal length is shorter than the short side of the film or sensor. Usually this is any lens shorter than 15mm, and for 35mm film or full-frame sensors it will be anything shorter than 24mm. The large depth of field means that it is easy to keep the entire scene in focus and the small focal length reduces camera shake at longer exposures. While fish-eye lenses create curvilinear barrel distortion and the impression of being in a fish bowl, here let’s talk about rectilinear lenses that are designed so that straight lines in the scene remain straight with only a slight distortion in perspective. This has the effect of pulling the viewer into the image, amplifying the foreground and pushing the background away.
Expanding the space
Ultra wide-angles allow you to get a whole lot more into your image and with landscape and seascape photography dramatic skylines, broad mountain ranges and large tracts of water can be expanded, creating striking images that highlight the sheer magnitude of nature. With good composition objects in the foreground, such as trees, rocks, or animals, can offer focal points for the viewer’s eye, with the natural landscape widening out behind them. Similarly, for portraiture the ultra wide-angle lens can offer a creative way of depicting your subject within their environment, amplifying their position in the foreground of the photo with the background adding depth to their story.
When so much fits into your viewfinder composition can often feel chaotic. How do you highlight the subject matter or tell the story you want with such a big canvas. When shooting with ultra wide-angle lenses leading lines can help to create powerful compositions and focus, drawing the viewers eye from the corners or edges of the image into a point of interest on the horizon or in the distance, particularly when there is no focal point in the foreground. Look for strong lines in the landscape or scene you are shooting and use them as the basis of structuring your composition.
Get in close
It is easy to be too far away when shooting with an ultra-wide angle lens, but difficult to be too close. When you think you are close enough to your subject go a little bit closer and compare the results. Unless objects of interest or people are really engaged with the lens they can often get lost in the expansive scene of the image. The slight distortion of the lens means that proximity can really make an image ‘pop’ and dynamic photos often result. For example, if you are shooting a portrait of a market vendor get in as close as possible to capture the details of their face and eyes, making this the focus of your image, but stay aware of what you are including in the background that complements their story – perhaps their produce or the market setting – and consider how this adds to the overall strength of the photo.
Where to start
Depending on what you are shooting with, Canon has a 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 while Nikon offers a 12-24mm f/4 that are both considered great quality (although the Nikon is a little pricey). In addition the Sigma 10-20mm f/4-5.6 produces excellent results and Tokina has an 11-16mm f/2.8 and a 12-24mm f/4 both of which have good reviews.